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Chapter 21 The Going of the Minister
Woodilee was early astir, for it was to be a day of portents in the parish. Word had come the night before of the judgment of the Presbytery — that their minister was deposed and excommunicated, and that Mr. Muirhead of Kirk Aller and Mr. Proudfoot of Bold had been deputed to preach the kirk vacant that very day. There was little work on the farms, for the lambing had scarcely begun, the ploughing was finished, and the ground was not yet dry enough for the seedbed; so the whole parish waited at the kirkyard gate.

Resentment was still deep against the minister as the cause — under Heaven — of the pestilence, and for his high-handed dealings during that time of trial. There were also the old grievances against him, so that those faithful to him were very few. Isobel was at Calidon, Reiverslaw had gone no man knew where, and only Amos Ritchie and one or two women were left to defend him. Strange news had come about the tenant of Crossbasket. There had been soldiers seeking him with a warrant for his apprehension; it seemed that the decent, quiet-spoken farmer-body was Mark Kerr, a kinsman of the Lord Roxburghe, whose name had appeared in many proclamations of the Kirk and the Estates, and who since Philiphaugh had been zealously sought for through the length of Scotland. Men remembered his masterful ways and declared that they had always known that he was gentrice; they remembered his handling of the pricker and were confident that they had detected his ungodliness. But that he should have lived among them gave them a feeling of distinction and adventure, and the younger people cast curious eyes towards the empty house of Crossbasket.

It was the first day that spring seemed to have come into the air, and the congregation, waiting in the kirkyard for the arrival of the ministers, were warmed by a mild and pleasant sun. The elders stood by the gate, each in his best attire, wearing — even the miller — an air of ceremonial gravity.

“This is a great day for Woodilee,” said Nether Fennan, “and a great day for Christ’s Kirk in Scotland. We cleanse the tabernacle of an unworthy vessel, and woe is me that some o’ the bauldest and stenchest Christians have no lived to see it. Peter Pennecuik — honest Peter had nae broo o’ Sempill — clouts o’ cauld morality, was his word — Peter has gane ower soon to his reward.”

“What’s come o’ Chasehope?” Mirehope asked. “He suld have been here langsyne. He’ll surely no be late on this heart-searching day.”

“I heard from the Chasehope herd,” said the miller, “that Ephraim never cam’ hame last night. The wife was sair concerned, but she jaloused it would be Presbytery business.”

“But that was a’ by and done wi’ by three in the afternoon. He would be seein’ Edom Trumbull about the new aits. Still and on, it’s no like Chasehope to let warldly matters interfere wi’ his Christian duty. . . . Eh, sirs, what a testimony Woodilee will bear the day! Mr. Mungo is to proclaim the outing, and Mr. Ebenezer is to preach the sermon, and on sic an occasion Bold is like a hungry gled and the voice o’ him like a Januar’ blast.”

Among the women sitting on the flat gravestones there was less talk of the Kirk and more of the minister. Most were bitter against him.

“They may out him and excommunicate him,” cried Jean of the Chasehope-foot, “but wha will restore me the braw bairn that dee’d in the pest whilk was sent to punish him? Answer me that, kimmers. I wad be the better pleased if I got my ten fingers at his thrapple.”

“Weel for you, wumman,” said another, “that Isobel Veitch is no here, or it’s your ain thrapple would suffer.”

“There’s a queer tale come up the water wi’ Johnnie Dow,” said a third. “There was talk, ye mind, o’ a lassie that he met wi’ in the Wud, and we a’ ken that there was a lassie wi’ him in the hinder days o’ the pest — the fairest face, some folk say, that they ever looked on.”

“Tuts, gossip, yon was nae lassie. Yon face was never flesh and bluid. It was a bogle oot o’ the Wud, and some says —” The speaker lowered her voice and spoke into her neighbour’s ear.

“Bogle or no, Aggie Vicar, it cured my wee Benjie, and nae word will be spoke oot o’ my mouth against it. The callant is still greeting for anither sicht o’ the bonny leddy.”

“Haud your tongues and let me speak. Johnnie Dow says the Presbytery had it a’ riddled out, and it seems it was nae fairy but a leevin’ lassie. And wha think ye she was? Nae less than the young mistress o’ Calidon.”

The women exclaimed, most of them incredulous.

“But that’s no a’. It seems that she and the minister had made it up thegither and she was promised till him. Mr. Fordyce o’ Cauldshaw telled that to the Presbytery.”

“Heard ye ever the like? Will Sempill be hingin’ up his bonnet at Calidon and turnin’ frae minister to laird? The lassie will no doubt heir the place, and it’s weel kenned that Sempill has walth o’ gear o’ his ain.”

“He canna weel do that if he’s excommunicat. He’ll aiblins [perhaps] be for fleein’ the country like the auld laird, and takin’ the quean wi’ him.”

“Ye havena heard the end o’ the tale,” said the first speaker. “Dinna yatter like pyets, or I winna get it telled. . . . The lassie is deid — deid three days syne o’ a backcast o’ the pest, and the minister is no to haud nor bind wi’ grief. Johnnie said he sat yestreen at Kirk Aller wi’ a face like a corp and took his paiks as mild as a wean, and him for ordinar’ sic an ettercap. Johnnie thriepit that he had maybe lost his reason.”

There was silence among her hearers, and only Jean of the Chasehope-foot laughed. “She’s weel oot o’ it,” she said, “and he’s weel served.”

“Wheesht, wumman,” said one. “The lad has sinned, but he’s but young, and his punishment is maybe ower sair.”

There was a movement among the crowd, for the ministers were seen approaching. They were received by the elders and conducted to the minute session-house, which was a pendicle on the east wall of the kirk. The congregation, according to custom, now entered the building, whence could presently be heard the sound of slow psalmody. Robb the beadle waited at the single door till the ministers reappeared, Mr. Muirhead in Geneva gown and bands, Mr. Proudfoot in his country homespun, for he was a despiser even of sanctioned forms. They too entered, and Robb followed, closing the door behind him, but leaving the great key in the lock.

Amos Ritchie arrived, moodily sauntering through the gate. He had been unable to face the kirkyard crowd, knowing that he would hear words spoken which might crack his brittle temper. He reached the door and was about to enter, when the sound of furious hoofs on the road made him pause. The rider hitched his bridle to the gate-post and strode up the path, and Amos saw that it was Reiverslaw.

“Am I ower late?” the new-comer panted. “What’s asteer in the kirk?”

“Ye’re ower late,” said Amos bitterly. “Yestreen the minister was condemned and excommunicat by the Presbytery at Kirk Aller, and Chasehope was affirmed a saunt for want o’ you to testify against him. This day Muirhead and Proudfoot are preachin’ the kirk empty.”

“God be merciful to me,” Reiverslaw groaned. “I only got the word last nicht, and I’ve left weary beasts on the road atween here and Langholm. . . . Where is the minister? Where is Mr. Sempill?”

“The Lord kens. He’s no in the manse, for I was there at skreigh o’ day, and he hasna been seen since he left Kirk Aller. . . . What does it matter? The puir lad has his name blastit, and Woodilee loses the best man that ever walked its roads. . . . Are ye for in?”

“I’m for in,” said Reiverslaw grimly. “If I canna help the minister I can mishandle some that hae brocht him doun. I’m thinkin’ Chasehope will hae sair bones or nicht.”

The two slipped through the door and stood in the dusk at the extreme back of the crowded kirk. The first exercises having been concluded, Mr. Muirhead was reading from the pulpit the finding of the Presbytery. The misdeeds of the minister were set forth seriatim with the crooked verbosity of a legal document. Then came the pith:

“Wherefore the Presbytery of Aller, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the sole King and Head of the Church, and by the power committed by Him to them, did, and hereby do, summarily excommunicate David Sempill, at present residing in the parish of Woodilee, delivering him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord, and the Presbytery did, and hereby do, enjoin all the faithful to shun all dealings with him, as they would not be found to harden him in his sins, and so to partake with him in his judgments.”

The Moderator read the words with a full voice and with relish. He outlined briefly the civil consequences attaching to excommunication, and dwelt terrifyingly on the religious state of one cut off from communion with Christ and His Kirk. Then he proceeded to depose the minister in absentia from the charge and to declare it vacant till such time as a successor was appointed. The appointment would be in the free gift of the people, subject to confirmation by the Presbytery, since Nicholas Hawkshaw, the chief, indeed the sole, heritor, was an outlaw and a fugitive. He concluded with prayer, a copious outpouring in which the godly in Woodilee were lauded for their zeal, condoled with in their sufferings, and recommended for a special mark of the Lord’s favour. Then he drew the skirts of his gown delicately around him, and gave place to the minister of Bold.

Mr. Proudfoot chose for his text second Kings the tenth chapter, the twenty-fourth verse, the second clause of the verse: “If any of the men whom I have brought into your hands escape, he that letteth him go, his life shall be for the life of him.” It was a theme that suited his genius, and never had he spoken with more freedom and power. Scripture was heaped upon Scripture to show the guilt of half-heartedness in God’s cause (“Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord”); the other charges against David he neglected, and concentrated on the awful guilt of unfaithfulness to the Kirk in her hour of trial. The bulk of the world lay prone under the foot of Satan, but in Scotland the Lord had set His poor people erect and committed His cause to their charge, and woe be to them if they faltered in that trust. At this point Mr. Proudfoot almost attained sublimity. There was a crusading zeal in his voice; his picture of the stand of the faithful remnant against the world was the vision of a stout heart.

He passed to David and his backslidings. He drew the minister as a weakling, beginning no doubt with an honest purpose, but soon seduced from the narrow path by the lusts of the eye and the pride of life. “Oh, is it not pitiful,” he cried, “in this short and perishing world, with the Pit yawning by the roadside and the fires of Hell banked beneath us — is it not pitiful and lamentable that the soul of man should have other thoughts than its hard-won salvation? What signify profane learning and the delights of the eye and the comforts of the body, and even good intents toward your fellows, if at the hinder end the Judge of all will ask but the one question — Have you your title in Christ?”

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